Very little has been written about ‘Middle Chile’. The lush Lake District in the south and the arid Atacama Desert in the north are the focal points of most Chilean travel guides – the centre often only ever gets mentioned for the sake of completeness.
The country as a whole is a real South American rarity. Having ousted its military dictatorship by means of a bloodless democratic vote in 1989, Chile is now on course to become the continent’s first ‘First World’ nation by 2020.
The economy is stable. Crime is low. The buses run on time. Chile is organised.
Most of the money comes from copper mining in the north, tourism in the south and fishing along its 4,000 kilometres of coast. But it is Middle Chile where these activities are orchestrated and regulated. Chile’s movers, shakers and decision makers all reside in its central economic heartland. The pivotal moments in Chile’s history all happened here.
My girlfriend and I arrived in the capital Santiago expecting a fusion of capitalism, optimism and liberalism with a Latin American twist – a sort of low calorie version of the USA where everybody speaks Spanish.
What we found was very different. We left with four big unanswered questions about the Middle Chilean mentality…
1. Where’s the booze?
I’ve always wanted to go to Lollapalooza. When I was growing up it was the USA’s answer to Glastonbury Festival – an orgy of grunge, mud and free love but with less hippies and more sunshine.
So it was with great excitement that I discovered the Lollapalooza brand had branched out to South America, and that Lollapalooza Chile 2014 coincided with our stay in Santiago.
Lollapalooza Chile is in fact the first ever rock music festival to be hosted in South America. Now in its third year, the format was such a hit first time round that Lollapaloozas are now also held every year in Buenos Aires and São Paulo.
We had been promised chaos. With Nine Inch Nails, Arcade Fire, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Soundgarden topping the line up, this was to be our chance to see Chileans go wild, embrace their primal urges and vomit in a field.
I have been to dozens of music festivals before, including four Glastonburys, and as soon as we reached the perimeter of Parque O’Higgins we were greeted by the comfortingly familiar sights, sounds and smells of music festivals back home.
There was a pointlessly long queue, the low thud of a beat in the distance and a rising tide of body odour. It was only after we got through the gates that the true horror of Lollapalooza Chile 2014 began to unfold.
Things started well with a solid performance by Cage The Elephant on the Coca-Cola stage. You could tell it was early in the day by the subdued mood of the crowd. They bobbed their heads and cheered appropriately but we were not yet far enough along to see them truly embody the festival spirit.
My girlfriend and I decided to help lubricate the atmosphere with a beer. Oddly, the first six food and drink stalls we came across didn’t seem to sell any.
We politely asked at an information point where to find the nearest cervezaria. The woman behind the desk grinned and replied that the only beer on site was on sale in the backstage area.
Lollapalooza Chile 2014 was a dry festival.
We staggered around in disbelief as if having been just smacked in the face with a bowling ball. Everything came in to focus. All around us there were happy sober people. Some of them were even eating fruit.
There was of course the occasional waft of weed and the odd sneaked in hip flask of whiskey, but there was no vomiting. There were no kids pilling their tits off or fat men in g-strings painted entirely in silver doing the Locomotion.
Our question about Lollapalooza Chile 2014 is not about why there was no booze on sale. Chile’s licensing laws prohibit the consumption of alcohol in public places and presumably the Lollapalooza’s organisers would sell it if their hands weren’t tied.
What left us baffled is why anyone would buy tickets to a dry music festival in the first place. What is the point of attending if not hedonism? Surely it’s not to appreciate the music?
2. Where’s the coffee?
We took a walking tour of Santiago. All in all it’s a fairly beige coloured place, somewhat lacking the danger and excitement of Rio or the glamour and sophistication of Buenos Aires, but it does have some nice bars and restaurants and the odd bit of arty graffiti.
After the presidential palace, the arts centre and the cathedral, our tour guide led us to an undercover shopping mall. Here we were introduced to café con piernas or ‘coffee with legs’.
Chile is a tea drinking nation at heart but in the 1930s a huge abundance of cheap, good quality coffee beans started being grown all over South America. Café con piernas was the coffee sellers’ way of breaking in to the Santiguan beverage market – by hiring scantily clad young girls as waitresses.
Since then, café con piernas has become something of a Santiguan institution. There are dozens of them dotted all over the city and are most frequented by businessmen and their clients. Multi-million peso deals are regularly struck in café con piernas, so said our tour guide.
When the tour was over, my girlfriend and I decided to experience a café con piernas in the name of journalistic science. There were three types to choose from – PG, Rated R and X Rated – denoted by the level of frosting on the outside window glass.
We plumped for the X Rated version on the basis that it would include all the explicitness of the PG and Rated R versions plus more. It was called ‘Café International’ – the glass on the outside windows was jet black.
I’ve always enjoyed making a grand entrance – at Café International my girlfriend and I did just that. Through the front doors and past the ticket booth there was an annoying s-shaped bend to enter. The bend was about an inch narrower than the width of my wheelchair.
Undeterred and unaware of what was around the corner, I hopped out of the wheelchair and with a press of a button pulled the rear wheels off the chair, thus making it skinny enough to fit through the s-bend, nearly knocking over a small partition wall in the process.
When we turned around there were eight or nine waitress in fluorescent g-strings staring at the commotion. My girlfriend and I mooched over to a corner to absorb our surroundings.
It was difficult to see how this particular café con piernas could be deemed an appropriate place to hold business meetings. For one thing, the total lack of any light other than UV light would make it very difficult to read handouts. Also, the pounding rhythm of Spanish language R’n’B reverberating through the floorboards would seriously impede the coordination of roundtable discussion.
Perhaps, as the topless waitress in the far corner twerked against the groin of a portly shirt and tie wearing office worker whilst he rubbed her boobs, they were discussing the relative performance of NASDAQ against the NIKKEI. If so, she looked very bored by it all.
Our waitress came over and twiddled her nipples through her string bikini top. We ordered cappuccinos. My girlfriend was slightly aggrieved to find out there was no soya milk.
The cappuccinos weren’t bad, slightly too sweet for my tastes, but par for the course when ordering coffee in South America. The waitress asked if we wanted her to dance. We declined the offer, finished our cappuccinos and headed back out in to the mall.
Our question about café con piernas is not about Santiago’s seemingly ‘anything goes’ approach to selling hot drinks.
Café con piernas do not serve alcohol and are only open during working hours – so are they really ultra liberal coffee houses or just uber-conservative strip clubs?
3. Where’s the beef?
I’ve never really understood the point of horses, much less the point of sports involving horses.
The 66th annual Campeonato Nacional de Rodeo however, also known as the Chilean National Rodeo Championships, was our chance to examine the Chilean mentality in a tourist free environment.
When we arrived at the croissant shaped stadium in Rancagua, 80 kilometres south of Santiago, the air was thick with the smell of barbecue and horse shit. Audience members wore ponchos and sombreros without irony.
As Chile’s national sport, the point of rodeo is to showcase all the skills necessary to ranch cattle. All the skills necessary to ranch cattle then went like this…
The arena was circular, but split in two sections. Cows would get giddied up in the smaller circle before being released in to the main circle. Horse riders in tandem would then have three opportunities to slam the cow in to the wall at opposite ends of the main circle. Three points were awarded for hitting the cow in the chest, four for the arse and none for the head.
There were different rounds for different weights, ages and gender of cow and horse.
Cheers and wolf whistles from the audience seemed to directly correlate to the severity of the hit. There were also TV cameras capturing every moment of the action, which could be seen on giant screens lining the top of the stadium. I liked the way that the camera zoomed in for the moment of impact, but panned away when the cows were lying crippled on the floor.
There was a noticeable frisson of excitement in the audience whenever a particularly frisky cow entered the arena and tried to jump the barrier. Sometimes the cows just gave up and sat down mid-round – a situation that could always be rectified by pulling its tail or yanking its head.
But the end result was always the same – the cow was pummelled and the crowd cheered.
Our question about the world of Chilean rodeo is not about the ill-treatment of animals – far more offensive practises happen every day in battery farming throughout the Western world and Chile actually has a relatively top notch record when it comes to caring for its livestock.
Chile has the widest gap between rich and poor of any OECD country. To become a top notch Chilean rodeo rider is prohibitively expensive for the average Chilean. Elitism in the sport sits uneasily with its status as the national game.
Of course, there will always be sports out of reach for the average joe – the same could be said for any game involving horses. The same could also be said about sailing, cycling, motor racing or tobogganing – but then nowhere in the world are those games the national sport.
Chilean rodeo originated out of the humble task of herding cattle to market, but somehow over the years it has become the preserve of the landed gentry. Why is it still so popular with regular Chileans?
4. Where’s the danger?
One hour after this photo was taken, my girlfriend and I were running for our lives…
We were learning how to make ceviche at a cooking course in the port city of Valparaiso when the earthquake siren sounded. Head chef Boris explained that this sort of thing happens all the time in Middle Chile. The country sits on a junction between three tectonic plates and in the last year alone there have been 500 recorded tremors.
Boris refilled our glasses and advised us not to worry. The ceviche was delicious.
After 45 minutes with no sign of the siren abating, Boris thought it wise to check the news. It turned out that an 8.2 on the Richter scale earthquake had struck some 1,500 kilometres north. Valparaiso was on lockdown for Armageddon.
We were well out of range of the tremors, but nonetheless precariously perched on the coast – prime position for an incoming tsunami.
The earthquake in the north was 16 times more powerful than the one that struck Haiti in 2010 killing 200,000 people. Being British, Nazi invasion and zombie apocalypse is the only survival situation I’d ever given much thought to previously. I figured this one would require a lot more flotation devices and a lot less weaponry.
We made it back to our hotel. It was completely deserted. My girlfriend used our room keycard to get in to the lobby, whilst I stayed outside to finish a cigarette.
Cigarette over, I discovered to my horror that my keycard wouldn’t let me in the building, and that my girlfriend’s keycard wouldn’t let her out. We were separated by a glass door.
I screamed at her to grab a couple of wine bottles from behind the front desk, then throw a chair through the window so we could make our escape to higher ground.
Just then, a police car screeched past the hotel and a man with a megaphone ordered us to run for the hills. The glass door opened without warning and my girlfriend strolled out without wine. We scampered up the slope as instructed.
Here we met half a dozen frantic tourists and several dozen nonplussed Chileans. It was a scenario that the Chileans had seen many times before, and they sighed drearily at the thought of a night out in the cold.
As luck would have it, we were befriended by two locals named Fransisco and Maria. They took us to the nearest pub where we drank fine ales until closing time.
We staggered back down just after midnight to see our fellow hotel guests standing outside the glass door, wrapped in blankets. The tsunami warning was scheduled to last until 6am, and so the management announced we were all to be herded off to a safe location.
I was woken up some time around 3am on the hotel lobby sofa. My girlfriend and I were the last to be evacuated.
The next day passed as normal. We made it back to the hotel, slipped on our pyjamas for the night and settled down to watch an episode of Archer on my laptop. Half way through, the earthquake siren sounded again.
Day clothes back on, we marched back up the hill, met some more nonplussed Chileans, waited for a couple of hours and then got back in to bed.
The day after that we were back in Santiago, waiting for the bus heading north to the Atacama Desert. As I sipped on a beer, the plant pots started to shake. It was an earthquake for real this time – 5.2 on the Richter scale about 100 kilometres south of where we were sitting.
My girlfriend and I glanced at each other. The barman grabbed the remote control, switched over to the news for 30 seconds to check there was no immediate threat to life and we all went back to minding our own business.
We had survived two tsunami warnings and an earthquake. We had survived Middle Chile.
With such a history of violence, dictatorship, inequality, social turmoil and natural disasters, how do the people here remain such a stable and conservative bunch?
Chile is a complex but charming beast that continually surprises. Perhaps three weeks was not long enough for my girlfriend and I to get under its skin.